Knicks Preview: From ‘Process’ to Progress?

First, there was a pause.

A question was posed about the direction of the franchise after yet another offseason of restructuring. A new general manager was in place. Carmelo Anthony was gone. Following two seasons of roster moves that suggested the intention was to make the playoffs, a long-awaited rebuild was in full effect.

[Hahn: New Era Begins, as Knicks Move On From Melo]

And the franchise now rested squarely on the bulked-up shoulders of Kristaps Porzingis, who, for now, is the centerpiece of the new era much like it was for Patrick Ewing in 1987 when the Knicks moved on from Bernard King.

Oh, here goes Alan again making the Ewing parallel.

OK, stop shaking your head and step into the MSG Network Hot Tub Time Machine with me for a moment …

Nov. 6, 1987. Opening Night. In Detroit.

Z. Cavaricci’s.

Nike Air Force Ones.

LL Cool J growling “I’m Bad.” in my Walkman.

Walking into the Pontiac Silverdome.

Mahorn. Laimbeer. Salley. Rodman. The Microwave. Dumars.

Isiah.

Baaaaad Boyyyyyyzzzzzzzz …

That was the first of five straight losses to open the season.

You see? The franchise was in a similar place. A couple of seasons ago, there was an inspiring run to the second round fueled by a dynamic scorer named Bernard King. Then, after an injury-riddled season came a lottery pick that yielded a future star (Ewing) and major changes at the top of the franchise.

Sound familiar?

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What also came that year was a point guard in Mark Jackson, who barely played in the opener and some felt at the time would not have a major impact at the NBA level. Jackson, however, would eventually bring back a long-lost mindset that New York fans immediately loved: passing.

OK, get out of those stonewashed jeans. Cut that mullet. I mean, you look ridiculous. Let’s get back to 2017.

Sept. 25, 2017, to be exact.

[Knicks Media Day]

[No one cares what you’re wearing. Stay focused.]

Porzingis just paused for two seconds after he’s asked to endorse the direction of a team that a few seasons ago had an inspiring run to the second round fueled by a dynamic scorer (Melo) and since had a lottery pick that turned into, well, him, and major changes in the hierarchy of the franchise.

Porzingis finally replies.

“I believe so,” he says. “I believe so.”

Much like 30 years ago, it won’t happen in a New York Minute for these Knicks. But this is where it begins. This is how it has to go.

No, this is not to suggest that Porzingis is Ewing on the court or that Frank Ntilikina is Jackson. But Ntilikina may, eventually, bring back a long-lost mindset that New York fans will immediately love: defense.

And Porzingis can set a standard like Ewing did in his own way.

“The first thing I’ll do,” Porzingis said of his leadership role, “is be the hardest-working guy.”

Alan, stop! Porzingis is not Ewing.

Personality-wise, you tell me they couldn’t be any more different.

Ewing was a workhorse! He was a warrior! Just look at that scowl!

Porzingis smiles a lot! He’s always hurt! And what’s with those skinny jeans?!

Hey. Do we have to go back into that hot tub again?

Well, we can’t. Ron Duguay is using it now. And where he goes … um … you may never want to ever come back.

So just trust the grey flecks of experience on my head when I tell you that when Ewing first arrived, he had moments of brilliance woven with frustrating awkwardness and, yes, fragility.

Did you know that Ewing didn’t play more than 50 games in his rookie season and only 63 in his second season? Porzingis played 72 as a rookie and 66 last season.

But that third season for Ewing, 1987-88, he was an NBA All-Star and he appeared in 82 games. It was the first of six straight seasons in which he would play at least 80 games. Porzingis spent the summer getting stronger so he can endure the grind of an NBA season and also allowed one personal goal: All-Star.

“I just wanted to say out loud: that’s the goal for me,” he said in his preseason sit-down with MSG Network. “I want to get there.”

So here we are now at the point where the parallels either continue or they stop.

Here we are at the point of where the rebuild will either trend toward success or a failure. In a season where the Knicks now have a core of young players, the top priority — maybe even more than the win-loss record — has to be the development of those players.

“You try not to sacrifice what you’re trying to do to build just to win some games,” Jeff Hornacek said during the preseason. “Obviously you want to win, but you have to find that balance.”

Use the New York Jets as a parallel. Build a culture, be competitive and hope over a short period of time there is evidence of a hard-working team that is trending up. There may be some talent deficiency and certainly experience deficiencies to endure, but if by the end of the season Porzingis is an All-Star and Ntilikina has grown into a contributing part of the rotation — with flashes of defensive impact — then there will be progression.

[Read More From Alan Hahn]

The East is, once again, built like a bodybuilder who routinely skips legs day. The Celtics and the Cavaliers are the obvious favorites. The Wizards and Raptors represent the second tier of veteran teams trying to make a push. The Bucks and Heat are younger and intriguing. The Hornets and Pistons are well-coached teams that will always be competitive.

So there. The Top-8 playoff teams if we’re power ranking.

After that, you have the “process” teams. The 76ers can’t wait much longer, so they’ll be desperate to make the playoffs. The Nets look like they’re ready to make a move up the ladder. But the Pacers, Bulls and Hawks went full-gut on their renovation. The Magic are on a treadmill.

Then there are the Knicks, with an open competition for several starting and rotation spots and a host of veteran players orbiting the young core. They’ll be, at the very least, an interesting team to follow throughout the year.

POINT GUARD

Ramon Sessions was brought in to be, in NFL parlance, a “bridge quarterback.” Sessions, an 11-year veteran, is smart enough to run an offense and capable enough to start, but even he knows the progression is to reach a point where Ntilikina takes over the role.

Ron Baker was signed after the undrafted rookie proved himself to be exactly the type of player the franchise wants: tough and defensive-minded. Baker can play both guard spots and is determined to prove he can be a reliable shooter.

Jarrett Jack provides more veteran guidance for Ntilikina in the locker room.

Ntilikina played just one preseason game because of a knee injury, but expects to be ready for the season opener. Baptism by fire? You have to expect he’ll see some time against MVP Russell Westbrook in the game, but they’ll bring him along slowly. The hope is he’ll eventually take over the bulk of the minutes by the second half of the season.

SHOOTING GUARD

If we’re making more comparisons to 1987, allow me to say Tim Hardaway Jr. reminds me of Gerald Wilkins. Seriously, both are athletic with a great bounce off one-foot and both needed to be consistent outside shooters to be most effective. Tim’s preseason Wally Szczerbiak Slash Line (FG/3PT/FT) numbers (53%/42%/83%) were outstanding. Wilkins was a better-than-average defender and that’s where Hardaway needs to focus.

Courtney Lee was the starter last season and his 40% from 3PT is an excellent rate, though the Knicks didn’t prioritize the three-ball. Lee’s defense will be the focus this season and it will be worth watching if playoff-bound teams see value in him at the trade deadline.

Rookie Damyean Dotson came in as a shooter and shot the ball well in the preseason, but he also displayed a tenacity on defense that could earn him minutes later in the season.

SMALL FORWARD

Lee could wind up starting here for a small-ball look, but Hornacek will have options as the Knicks no longer have Melo here to provide 20 points per game. Doug McDermott, who came over in the Melo trade, is a floor-spacer with his shooting ability and is in constant motion on offense. The question, however, involves his ability to defend that position.

Lance Thomas is all about defense and has a value in his versatility as a defender.

Michael Beasley is the definition of a wild card. He’ll be the most quotable player in the locker room, but his ability to provide offense will be intriguing enough to not overlook him in the rotation.

Where does this leave Mindaugas Kuzminskas? Kuz was a fan favorite last season and was a smart player who wasn’t afraid of the big shot. His preseason was limited by a calf injury after he played in the EuroBasket for Lithuania.

POWER FORWARD

Porzingis made it clear he prefers to play here rather than center, so expect the bulk of his minutes here. It’s the one spot in the starting lineup that you can mark down in permanent ink.

Backup options include Willy Hernangomez and Kyle O’Quinn if the Knicks load up and go big, while Beasley and Kuzminskas are available if Hornacek wants to go small.

CENTER

Enes Kanter arrived with McDermott in the Melo trade and seems like the logical option to start at center next to Porzingis in the frontcourt. Kanter is a rebounding machine. His Offensive Rebounding Percentage of 14.1% last season was sixth highest among players who appeared in at least 50 games. He was 4th among Sixth Man candidates with 14.3 points per game coming off the bench in Oklahoma City. He can score in the post, set big screens and clean the glass, which should complement Porzingis’ game. But the concern involves his defense — especially in pick-and-roll — which was an area of scrutiny with the Thunder.

Hernangomez also proved to be a terrific rebounder in limited minutes last season and it was also on display for Spain at EuroBasket this summer. He and Porzingis have great chemistry and are good friends. But is Hernangomez “long” enough to play center in the NBA? He’s not a shot-blocker and isn’t much of a leaper. But he is smart and he has been tutored by his mentor, Marc Gasol, whom he tries to emulate.

Joakim Noah will sit out the first 12 games of the season to finish his NBA suspension due to violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He is also coming back from offseason shoulder surgery and last season dealt with hamstring and knee issues. But when he did play, Noah was a very effective offensive rebounder. But his days as one of the league’s top defenders seem to be over as a result of his body breaking down.

COACHING

Hornacek gets to play it his way now that Phil Jackson and the Triangle are in the past. He had success in Phoenix playing small and fast and utilizing scoring at the guard position. There may not be enough dynamic offense in the backcourt to replicate the 48-win season he had with the Suns, but expect the Knicks to play more up-tempo.

Hornacek has gone out of his way to prioritize defense this season and admitted he relied too much on the veterans last season to be prepared defensively. This time around, they have emphasized defensive principles and a foundation of expectations. It still seemed to be a work-in-progress in the preseason and will likely be a challenge early in the season until the players grasp the plan and develop the necessary chemistry.

FRONT OFFICE

With Jackson out, Steve Mills moved from the GM seat and into the president role while Scott Perry arrived to fill the GM role. Mills and Perry both are committed to building around the core of young players and developing a culture within the organization. The challenge will be to remain steadfast in this process, especially if the wins are few and far between.

[Hahn: Knicks Hit Reset After Front Office Restructuring]

Perry said he will be actively looking to improve the roster throughout the season, but you can expect he will be getting calls about veterans on the team, such as Lee, Kanter and O’Quinn, from playoff teams looking to add. Can Perry collect draft picks along the way? Of utmost importance is Mills and Perry focusing on player development, so the players they already have and picks they do make turn the “process” into progress.

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The Garden of Dreams Foundation helps kids facing obstacles in the Tri-State area, including Rangers fan Taylor Ryan who is battling a rare blood disorder called Langerhans cell histiocytosis.